Along with his Gameboy, cassette player, deck of cards and reluctantly stuffed-in homework, 8-year-old Matt packed his own personal guidebook for the trip to Florida.
En route, as I prayed for sun and entertained the baby, Matt and his 6-year-old sister, Reggie, would get their own introduction to the Sunshine State -- complete with funny cartoon drawings, a travel diary, tips for native dishes (try conch chowder in Key West and seafood everywhere), quizzes and other whimsical word and picture games related to different sites (can you name the seven dwarfs?) and offbeat, little-known facts designed to appeal to children (did you know that when you cross the border into Florida, you are already 120 miles south of any beach in California?).
"A Kid's Guide to Florida" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $6.95) is only one of several Gulliver Travels guides for children. The series includes "A Kid's Guide to Southern California" (did you know all the boysenberries in the world trace their roots to Knott's Berry Farm, the nation's oldest amusement theme park 30 minutes south of Los Angeles?); "A Kid's Guide to Washington, D.C." (get this: the Washington Monument sways in a 35-mph-wind), and "A Kid's Guide to New York City" (did you know that more than 75 languages are spoken in New York City?).
At the same time, New Mexico-based John Muir Publications boasts that its "Kidding Around" series is "making the world more accessible for young children."
On a recent flight to London, in fact, Matt picked up plenty of information with kid appeal from Sarah Lovett's "Kidding Around London: A Young Person's Guide to the City" ($9.95) -- from a brief history including obscure facts (the Great Plague killed 75,000 Londoners) to sightseeing tips (pick out the five regiments participating in the Changing of the Guard by their different uniforms) to where to shop for toys (Hamley's on Regent Street).
The "Kidding Around" series gives this same breezy treatment to other cities, including Paris, Washington, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.
Clearly publishers have recognized what toy makers and the travel industry already know: Children -- along with their parents -- are traveling in record numbers. And just as they want hotels and resorts to cater to families with children's meals and activities and travel games they can take along, they also want guidebooks that will appeal to the pint-sized tourists.
The publishers have gotten the message. There are books to amuse children en route (the AAA "Travel Activity Book" [$4.95] offers games and activities for each of the 50 states) as well as to teach them.
Parents haven't been forgotten, either, in this rush to appeal to the family market. Check your local bookstore. Some even have family travel sections. There are dozens of family travel books now in bookstores to suit every kind of vacation style. But they're more apt to focus on where to go than on how to survive it -- and even have fun.
For example, if you're a resort-minded family, Martha Shirk and ,, Nancy Lepper, both moms and seasoned travelers, offer you "Super Family Vacations" ($12.75, Harper and Row). It's a guide to more than 100 vacation spots, from Caribbean resorts to dude ranches to cruise ships that are geared to families.
"Great Vacations With Your Kids" by Dorothy Jordan and Marjorie Adoff Cohen ($12.95, E. P. Dutton) is even more comprehensive, covering everything from city vacations to wilderness trips to resorts that offer family tennis and golf vacations.
If smaller country inns are more your style, there's "Recommended Family Inns of America" (Globe Pequot, $10.95), which tells you about inns that have playgrounds, pets and babysitters and nature classes, picnics and cribs.
If you're heading to Europe, don't leave without Valerie Wolf Deutsch and Laura Sutherland's "Innocents Abroad" ($15.95, Plume Books). It's a country-by-country guide designed for families, telling you everything from where to stay, what to eat and which sites are must-sees.
For those of you aching to head for the wilderness with the baby, there's the Sierra Club's "Starting Small in the Wilderness" ($10.95) and "Easy Access to National Parks" ($16), which initially was written for people with disabilities but proves as useful to families with young children who are looking for low-effort hiking spots.
An entire series, "Best Hikes with Children" ($12.95 each), published by the Seattle-based Mountaineers, offers hikes and nature walks in various regions of the country, including New Jersey, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park.
For those who prefer to stay closer to the big city, Frommer's has a series of excellent family travel guides, including "New York City With Kids," "California With Kids," "Los Angeles with Kids," "San Francisco with Kids" and "Washington, D.C., with Kids" (Prentice Hall, $18). These are very practical how-to books: where to stay, which sites to see, what to eat.
There is also a growing number of books geared to families in a particular region. Bonnie Rubin and Marcy Mason, for example, have written "Quick Escapes from Chicago" (Globe Pequot, $12.95), which offers 25 weekend getaways to Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. Carole Terwilliger Meyers' "San Francisco Family Fun" ($12.95, Carousel Press) even gives you 30 pages of places to eat with your children, sightseeing treks that will enthrall even teens and hotels that cater to families.
For Southern Californians, there's Stephanie's Kegan's "Places to Go With Children in Southern California" (Chronicle Books, $9.95), which covers more than 400 places to go with children, from beaches to museums to annual festivals.
The thing about these books is you don't really need to be planning to go anywhere. They'll spur your imagination and get you thinking about where you really want to go. Happy planning.
Questions, comments or stories should be addressed to Taking the Kids, c/o Baltimore Sun, P.O. Box 119, 2859 Central St., Evanston, Ill. 60201-1234.